Hacks

10 Hacks That Will Make Office Life Much More Bearable

Life happens, even at work. So try out these tips for dealing with spilled coffee, staying cool with a fan and more.
10 Hacks That Will Make Office Life Much More Bearable
Image credit: simonkr | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
12 min read

What should you do if you spill coffee on your keyboard? How can you make your cubicle feel more like a sanctuary and less like a prison cell? What should you do when you’re feeling tired, antsy or in need of a refresh?

When you’re in the workplace, you might not have access to all of the creature comforts and cleaning supplies you would at home, but that doesn’t mean you should feel uncomfortable or unprepared when life takes its toll.

Related: 12 Office Desk Hacks to Improve Your Productivity (Infographic)

You’re also probably (hopefully, for your colleagues’ sake) aware of how you behavior comes across at work: You don’t want to subject anyone to the breeze of your desk fan, the unwieldy vines of your desk plant that’s growing like a weed or your panic when you realize you might have fried your hard drive.

To set yourself up for success at work beyond your typical negotiation strategies and email etiquette, read on for 10 office hacks that will make your days go smoothly.

1. Save your keyboard from a coffee spill.

We’ve all been there. You’re being very careful, drinking coffee or another acidic or sugary beverage while working on your computer. Then, before you know what’s happening, bam. Your keyboard is flooded.

Don’t panic in this scenario. Instead, your first step should be to turn off your computer and unplug it from any power sources or external hard drives, advises New York Times Personal Tech columnist J.D. Biersdorfer. Take out the device's battery, if your computer is designed to allow this.

Ignore the instinct to wipe down your laptop and, instead, blot the spill with a clean towel. If you use a wiping motion, you might push the liquid further into the machine.

If you’re able to, turn the laptop upside down and leave it off to allow as much of the liquid to drain out as possible. If a ton of liquid (something other than water) has spilled onto it, and you’re able to take it in to a repair shop right then, do so.

Luckily, this sort of hazard is preventable: Use a plastic keyboard cover, or drink from a mug with a lid that locks.

2. Keep your laptop clean in general.

Even if it doesn’t bother you that your laptop is a bit grimy, leaving fingerprints, coffee splash stains and other residue on your screen, keyboard and trackpad is arguably not the most professional way to present yourself.

You don’t need to schlep to an office supply store or shell out for a fancy cleaning solution kit to get your machine looking sparkly. Cleaning expert Jolie Kerr tells the Times that the four essentials for keeping a pristine computer are rubbing alcohol (90 percent isopropyl or higher), microfiber cloths, cotton swabs and canned air.

The canned air is designed to blast crumbs, pet hair and other debris out of the crevices of your machine, including under the keys. Start there.

If your laptop is one of the models that its manufacturer has designed to be taken apart, once you’ve turned it off, unplugged it and taken out its battery, you can use canned air on the inside hardware, too. Why clean the inside? Because buildup of any kind can make your computer more susceptible to overheating.

First, do a test spray away from your laptop to clear the nozzle, then go to town on the headphone jack, keyboard -- anywhere some gross particles could have found their way in. Spray in short bursts to prevent condensation buildup.

Then, wipe whatever the air spray has unearthed from your computer’s exterior. For this phase of the cleaning process, use only water on the screen, but you can use the alcohol on less sensitive areas (but apply it to the cotton swabs, not the machine directly).

3. Use your fan correctly.

If you work in a sweltering office, it can be difficult to keep your cool. Rather than passive-aggressively fanning yourself with a stack of papers whenever your always-cold co-worker walks by wearing her cardigan and scarf, figure out how to best position a personal fan to cool your workspace.

There are a couple of factors to keep in mind about the physics of fans before you plug yours in. If your immediate workspace is hot but near a cooler area such as a hallway, it might be wise to position the fan away from you, so the fan sucks the hotter area into the cooler vicinity, air quality engineer Andrew Persily tells Quartz. But the more effective solution, if it’s somehow cooler outside than inside, would be to crop the fan in the window, blowing into the room.

If it’s hotter outside than inside, make sure the fan is blowing directly onto you. The fan itself will not cool down the room -- the entire point is to move the air against the perspiration that’s on your body.

4. Rest your eyes.

Even those of us who complain of having to stare at a computer screen all day don’t always take the necessary precautions to minimize eye strain.

First, make a point of looking away from the screen at regular intervals. One widely accepted, easy-to-remember strategy is, every 20 minutes, look at an object at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. The Canadian Association of Optometrists refers to this as the 20-20-20 rule.

If you’re able to shift the angle of your computer screen or monitor so overhead lights don’t create painful glare, do so. Another option is to download an add-on such as Flux, which will filter out some of the blue light from your display, leaving your screen looking yellowish. You can use this setting round the clock, but its developers otherwise program it to kick in around sunset. A less blue and dimmer screen is easier on the eyes, and it’s designed to help you sleep better at night.

For Mac users, Apple released a similar tool within its software in early 2017, called Night Shift. The support page for the feature states, “Studies have shown that exposure to bright blue light in the evening can affect your circadian rhythms and make it harder to fall asleep.”

5. Let the light in.

You may not want your colleagues to think you’re vain, but consider putting a mirror at your desk if you want more natural light in your space. If there are some windows nearby, and the overhead light isn’t too overpowering, experiment with a mirror or two, placing them at different angles until you’ve created the illusion that your desk area is more illuminated (and perhaps even seemingly more spacious).

Another perk of a mirror is that it might help you see who’s walking behind you, so no one startles you when they’re trying to get your attention and you’re wearing headphones. However, note that seeing a great deal of movement outside of your peripheral vision might prove distracting.

Another option for those whose workspaces are far from a window is a natural light bulb, or a therapy lamp designed to combat seasonal affective disorder. The latter sometimes can help treat people with sleep disorders, some forms of depression and jet lag as well, according to the Mayo Clinic.

6. Fidget more mindfully.

Maybe you bite your fingernails, tap them on the desk, click your pen or even mindlessly doodle throughout the workday. These habits are not necessarily ones you should try to suppress (unless you’re disturbing co-workers, damaging your body, etc.). The instinct to fidget is completely normal, and it actually helps you work better.

Researchers at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Game Innovation Lab explain that the “interrelation of bodily movement, cognition and emotional state has been amply demonstrated, and manipulating physical objects with the hand is known to activate the brain in measurable ways.”

So, who says fidget spinners are just for kids? There are a number of objects you can use to keep your hands busy that are ergonomically designed for this purpose, from fidget cubes to squeezable stress balls. The latter may even relax you.

Related: How to Add Plants to an Office to Make Employees More Focused and Productive

7. Add a plant.

Research shows that indoor plants improve people’s moods, productivity and creativity and minimize the number of sick days they take from work.

If you’re an individual looking to greenify your workspace, add a plant or two to your desk area, being mindful of company policy, as well as any nearby colleagues’ preferences and allergies.

Some low-maintenance plants that indoor landscaping company Ambius suggests for office workers include Sansevieria, Aglaonema, Pothos, Philodendrons and Zamioculcas zamiifolia (ZZ Plants). If you have no windows near you, the aforementioned species are also good options, or you could try Spathiphyllum plants.

8. Know what to do if a colleague needs emotional support.

At work, we have to look out for our own best interests, complete our tasks and keep things work appropriate. But sometimes, a co-worker will need a shoulder to cry on or a sounding board for their frustrations or will be going through a difficult time at home.

As etiquette columnist Ross McCammon once wrote for Entrepreneur, “you're not going to fix anything” when you’re comforting someone, so that shouldn’t be your goal. Instead, your aim should be to display empathy in a professional manner.

If someone is on the verge of tears, don’t tell them not to cry. Such emotions are natural, and the last thing you want to do is make them feel guilty for their feelings. Instead, wrap up the conversation and allow them to let their tears run their course privately. If you’re a manager and you’ve made someone cry (but not full-on sob), don’t touch them to comfort them. Just tell them you want to understand. As McCammon puts it, say something like, “You're clearly upset, though I'm not sure I understand why. Know that you can tell me, and I want to help.”

When someone is full-on sobbing, your first move should be to preserve their dignity by shutting the door or quietly ushering them to a more private place. In these instances, McCammon says, a hand on the shoulder to comfort is fine.

Another dilemma might be when you know someone you work with is going through a personal crisis. In these cases, don’t “try to do too much,” as McCammon explained in another column. “Don’t demand information by asking ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘What can I do?’”

A post Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg shared shortly after her husband died drives this point home: “Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

McCammon also reported in his column that the best things you can say are, “I heard what happened” and “I can’t imagine what it’s like for you,” according Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute. From there, your colleague can decide how they’d like to open up to you, and you haven’t demanded that they engage with you about what’s going on, nor have you tried to mediate their emotions.

9. Wake yourself up.

Some days, you wake up groggy, but you’re still forced to drag yourself to the office or log on to complete the day’s tasks. Before you mainline some coffee, try these strategies to feel more energetic throughout the day.

First, splash cold water on your face to give yourself a jolt of energy. This might involve taking a cold shower before you leave home. (Research has shown that people who take cold showers take fewer sick days, too.) If you’re pressed for time, drinking a glass of cold water could have a similar effect.

Various research has shown that timing your coffee correctly can also help maximize your alertness. The key is to drink coffee when your cortisol levels are at their lowest. People commonly refer to cortisol as the “stress hormone” -- it’s a chemical compound that boosts your energy. For the average person, cortisol levels spike between 8 and 9 a.m., according to neuroscience Ph.D. candidate Steven Miller.

Avoid adding caffeine to the mix during that peak cortisol time -- you’re better off boosting your alertness levels once the cortisol peak is over, to avoid becoming jittery. So, save the coffee until the 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. window -- or about three to five hours after wake-up.

Related: 6 Brilliant Productivity Hacks From 6 Brilliant Entrepreneurs

10. Try these office grooming hacks.

Even a day at the office can take its toll. Over the course of a day, even if you’re sitting at a desk for most of it, you can become sweaty, your breath may start to stink, your makeup may need a touch-up and more.

Rather than taking a bunch of toiletries to work, look around the office and improvise with the supplies available. For instance, you can use coffee filters to blot the oil from your face or shine your shoes with a banana peel.

Another trick you can try, if you notice your body odor is becoming a bit strong, is to take a spray bottle, fill it with some vodka (someone in your office probably has a bottle, right?) and spritz it on your clothes, according to AskMen.com.

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